Alternative cow-calf systems give producers options

Cow-calf producers in the Midwest that endure constant pasture and hay challenges have had to find alternative ways to raise cattle.

Erika Lundy, Iowa State University Extension beef specialist, said while producers have lost pasture and hay ground, they have maintained cow numbers. Iowa has just under 1 million beef cows; Missouri and Nebraska have about 2 million cows each.

“Lower feed costs have helped make up for fewer grass acres. And we are starting to see more cow-calf pairs being raised in a confinement-type production system,” Lundy said.

Iowa State’s cow system project studies producer profitability comparing three main management practices—a traditional system of grazing from spring through fall and using stored feed in the winter months; a year-round grazing system; and confinement systems.

“We know different systems work for different producers. Our goal is to get producer data to show the positives and negatives of each system,” Lundy said.

Cows in confinement

There is more than one way to raise cattle under roof. Some systems may have long-term confinement in a hoop or monoslope building. Others may use buildings just during calving season until pasture is available. Drylot systems would also be considered confinement. Stored feed would need to be used in both drylot or building situations.

“If cows are just calved in the building and then sent to pasture, the building could be utilized the rest of the time for backgrounding or finishing calves,” Lundy said.

Feed resources need to be plentiful and economically feasible if raising cattle in a confined situation.

There are positives to confinement housing of beef cows. Lundy said this gives the animals more shelter during the cold winter months or the hot summer months. Checking, assisting and treating cattle during calving or illness becomes much easier since they are already in a confined area. This also allows for easier access when using synchronization programs, artificial insemination and embryo transfer.

“Creep feeding is much easier in the smaller area and a separate pen can allow calves to get away from their mothers to relax and eat on their own,” Lundy explained.

But there are some negatives. Less ventilation and less exercise area is available with concentrated waste in the buildings. Although, Lundy said the waste can be used for nearby crop ground and a manure management plan would be needed.

Health problems could occur, as cattle are exposed to more pathogens in a smaller area than if on pasture.

“There is an increase in labor for cattle on confinement because they need to be fed daily. This means an increase in equipment use and purchase on top of the initial investment cost of the building,” Lundy said.

Confined cow system collaborators involved in the ISU study have said foot health and structure is a concern and since animals are not getting as much exercise, mass hoof trimming is often needed. Some have also seen an increase in calf broken legs because more animals are in a smaller area.

“Cow disposition is very important in a confinement situation. They need to be workable, calm and willing to come to the bunk to get enough nutrition,” Lundy said. “The bunk experience is a positive when transitioning weaned calves, as they are already used to eating from bunks.”

Investment costs

Lundy said it is hard to compare the cost of a building to the purchase of land since the building will depreciate over time. The actual monoslope or hoop barn will cost about $1,400 per cow space or about $156 per cow per year with a 12-year payback at 5 percent interest. Equipment cost would have to be calculated on a case-by-case basis depending on the other uses on the enterprise or if the equipment is shared with other producers. Bedding cost, feed cost and manure handling costs are also taken into consideration.

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In comparison, 150 acres of pasture may cost $3,500 per acre with a 5 percent down payment and a 20 year loan at a bank or institution with varying interest, would be about $180 per cow per year. A pasturing system also only covers feed for part of the year.


Lundy said research from North Dakota State University and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln shows drylotting cows can also be a viable alternative production system. Ideal pen density per pair is 800- to 1,000-square feet, with an absolute minimum of 500-square feet per pair. These numbers could also change depending on the size of the cows.

A building would need 80- to 120-square feet per pair. Bunk space beds to be 2 feet per dry cow or 3 feet per pair with a proper throat height. Lundy recommends 18 inches.

An escape or creep area for calves needs to be big enough for the calves to relax and move around.

Environmental controls will come into play with a confinement-type building and Lundy said it is important to have a manure management plan for each building.


Maintenance requirements of cows in a confined system need to be evaluated differently than when cows are on pasture. Managing body score condition is a little different and Lundy recommends having cows at a body condition score of 6 pre-calving when under roof.

“It can be easier to sort cows that need a little extra nutrition in a building and then groups can be managed better,” she said.

To optimize feed efficiency a total mixed ration is recommended. Ionophores can be used to improve feed efficiency. Lundy said producers can limit feeding high energy feeds to provide adequate energy and protein. Lower quality forage can be added to provide roughage.

Feed by-products such as gluten feeds or distillers grains can be used for added nutrients at a lower cost.


“Speculation of increased dystocia in confinement situations can be true because of reduced exercise of cows,” Lundy said. “But it is easier to check these cows for calving problems and tend to them more easily.”

Another concern is a cow’s mothering ability when other cows and calves are so close to where she is giving birth. Some producers will sort new pairs into a smaller pen to allow bonding time and colostrum ingestion.

Lundy said it is important to be sure cows are on a good vaccination program to pass on the disease immunities to the calves through colostrum.

Producers will also move cows into different areas of the barns after a certain time period to decrease the concentration of pathogens. Proper bedding and manure removal will also help decrease pathogens.

“It’s hard to compare raising cattle in a building versus on pasture, but having the option to move pairs into a confinement situation has helped some producers to continue raising cattle if they lose pasture or hay acres,” Lundy concluded.

Jennifer Carrico can be reached at 515-833-2120 or [email protected].